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How do political battles affect the poor?

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Picture: Angelo Kalmeyer/ANA (files) – Members of the Western Cape Basic Income Grant (BIG) Coalition demonstrate outside St George’s Cathedral in Cape Town. The problem with political fights is that they distract attention and resources away from leadership and oversight bodies from doing what they are meant to do, the writer says.

By Isobel Frye

South Africans are gripped by the unfolding political drama around whether Cyril Ramaphosa will and should remain as President of the country and of the ruling party. While the question of who runs the country is a national question, the current drama is essentially a deliberative process that is internal to the ANC.

The public at large will get to have their say when it comes to electing the ruling party, and national and provincial elections are due to be held only in 2024. That leaves many months for the leadership of the ANC to either acquit itself with honour which should show in the 2024 polls, or to continue to limp into irrelevance by the time of the elections. Taking that long view, the current drama should really rate as a five or six out of ten for newsworthiness. But there are a number of reasons why there is much more at stake in this debate for the poor, whose daily livelihoods depend on the efficient and effective administration of the state.

Firstly, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world, and inequalities are extremely detrimental to the well-being of poor people. The mutual reinforcement of elite interests between the political and the economic elites has been widely written about. To maintain their mutual privileges, elite compacts emerge. This can lead to funding from wealthy elites being channelled to political elites through business opportunities and deals. Reciprocity can take many forms, from low corporate tax rates, an increase on taxes like Value Added Tax in favour of a limitation on wealth taxes, and a tendency towards unbundling state utilities to provide for Private Public Partnerships where user fees are hiked to cover the promised profits.

South Africa has indeed seen a reduction in Corporate Tax in the last budget, and a commitment to reducing the unsustainable inequality through wealth tax is nowhere to be seen. VAT was hiked to 15 percent in 2019, a move that many thought would never happen given the global criticisms of flat- rate taxes because they tax the poor at the same rate as the wealthy, unlike progressive taxes which tax people more the more they have. In effect we have seen a redistribution from the tables of the poor to the profits of corporate shareholders.

The second issue is about the rule of law, the very bedrock of a modern state. Many people are talking about the need to adhere to the rule of law. Every side to the current drama claims to be wanting to defend the rule of law against anarchy and lawlessness. It seems that the law allows for many interpretations. When leaders advance division to further self interest, one of the fall outs is that ordinary people feel less compelled to obey the law in their personal and professional lives.

It also raises the question as to which law we need to be obeying. Is it just criminal law? What about the constitutional obligations that guarantee access to adequate food and universal social security and ultimately the right to equality before the law, dignity and life? Are we able to just ignore those?

Thirdly we must acknowledge the absence of an optimally functioning independent administration or executive. Senior positions are often political appointments. This has two potentially negative effects. Firstly as has often said it does not guarantee that the appointee has the necessary qualities required to execute the tops jobs with excellence. Secondly, there can be a reluctance of such senior bureaucrats to take decisions that might make them fall from political favour. It is very cold outside the luminous inner circle, especially then the elite compacts mentioned earlier are strong.

And the problem with these fights is that they distract attention and resources away from leadership and oversight bodies from doing what they are meant to do. The individual advancement of access to office when thwarted takes time, as do multiple court appearances. Parliament’s usual oversight obligations on state performance gets pushed down the priority list for ad hoc or special committees to consider reports on wrongdoing and motions for impeachment of the emergent tactical games.

And the state’s delivery of its mandate deserves as much scrutiny as it can get from Eskom to the state of public health care facilities, to income and employment matters.

The third quarter unemployment statistics released this week showed very little improvement as the levels of unemployment dropped back to where the country was pre-Covid. The media narrative however suggested that South Africa is back in the land of healthy employment, and that need for concern is now over.

South Africa continues to use the narrow definition as the official definition of unemployment. This rate excludes from the definition of unemployment everyone who is unemployed but has given up looking for a job, people formerly known as ‘discouraged workseekers’.

The unemployment rate without discouraged workseekers is 32.9 percent, When you add those who have given up looking for a job, it is actually 43.1 percent, or around 11.9 million adults. It seems more honest to use the broad definition of unemployment.

So while 43.1 percent is 1percent lower than last quarter, it is critical that we compare this rate with the rest of the world, as we do not seem to grasp the magnitude of the unemployment crisis we have. The unemployment rate in East Asia is 4 percent, in South Asia and North America, it is 5.7 percent. For Sub Saharan Africa, the average rate is 7.6 percent. This is over five times lower than in South Africa and her neighbours.

And the political infighting of our leadership is distracting attention away from solving this. The fights lead to a weakening of our global standing. The Economist on Thursday or Friday covered the happenings in a podcast. This attention leads to further weakening of our currency, which leads to more expensive imports of fuel and food increasing the costs of living.

Political infighting also reduces the sense of ordinary people that political leaders have the country’s best interests at heart. The savage attacks have never been about whose approach to solving national crises such as Eskom or unemployment are best. The individualised nature of the attacks threatens the attempts to build solidarity and cohesion that we need in a country as divided as we remain, so long after the formal dismantling of the Apartheid state.

The latest unemployment figures show the unreal difference in how unemployment affects people of different racial classification. According to StatsSA, unemployment amongst Black African people is 47.6 percent; for people categorised as Coloured it is 34.1 percent, for people of Indian descent it is 20.8 percent and for Whites it is a single-digit 9.5 percent.

The fighting will continue as we have seen from the President’s statement indicating the intended constitutional review of the Section 89 report, but inasmuch as that is his right as an individual, what is right for the country?

There are lessons to be learned for ordinary people, because it is likely that this sort of destabilising fights will be even more prevalent if the 2024 elections bring provincial or national coalition rule.

We need a strengthened state that can operate as an efficient, rules-based administration with pro-poor programmes that are written into law and are not subject to whim or discretion. One such example would be to write into law the discretional R350 grant as a permanent universal basic income grant.

Secondly, we need to apply even-handed defence of the rule of law. If the courts are to be used to fight battles for office, then equally social justice defenders should be advancing access to human rights such as decent healthcare, education, food and shelter that can pass the standard of dignity through the same courts.

And finally, people need to concentrate their efforts on building strong and inclusive communities of interests and collective agency, to work on school governing boards, community health clinic committees and community police fora, to intentionally build the participative power and oversight that characterised past struggles for equality, dignity and life, and in so doing, protect and advance a national social morality.

Isobel Frye is Executive Director Of the Social Policy Initiative

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